Box Jelly fish
Environmental Problems in Australia
Protecting the environment is one of those things that almost everyone agrees is important, but few people stop to think about what it actually involves. Should humans see themselves as part of an ecosystem, or wardens over it? Is a golf course that is home to kangaroos, frogs, and turtles as worthy of protection as a eucalypt forest that has few animals by comparison? Is the dingo a native Australian animal that needs to be respected for its place in the ecosystem, but a dingoX a feral that needs to be shot or poisoned? If a dingoX is to be killed, is it to help the dog maintain its place in the Australian ecosystem or is it because genetic purity is more interesting for humans? In an ecosystem that has had humans shaping it for 50,000 years, what is wilderness?
How such questions are answered has a huge influence on the dynamic of the ecosystem that is created when policies are created to "protect" the environment and even what the "environment" actually is.
Unfortunately, the questions are being answered in a way that is resulting in a significant decline in biodiversity, which is also putting many Australian animals at risk of extinction. In 2010, Australia had 1750 species on the threatened list. 59 mammals were at risk of immediate extinction and 18 mammals had gone extinct in the last 100 years. In contradiction with popular belief, the areas most disconnected from urban activities had the highest rates of extinction. For example, at the 136 sites across northern Australia that had been repeatedly surveyed since 2001, the mammal populations had dropped by an average of 75 per cent. The number of sites classified as ''empty'' of mammal activity rose from 13 per cent in 1996 to 55 per cent in 2009. (3)
The areas experiencing a decline in mammal activity included the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park. Over the last two decades, there has been a 71 percent decline in the total number of animals in the park and almost half the area of the national park no longer had any native mammals at all. It must be stressed that, within the National Park, the native animals have not been threatened by farming, have not been threatened by mining, have not been threatened by urban development and have not been threatened by human “neglect.” To the contrary, the park has been constantly subjected to feral species control programs which aim to eliminate the threats to native animals. Furthermore, each year over half of the park gets burnt in accordance with a contemporary scientific belief that Australian ecosystems need human initiated fire management policies to rejuvinate themselves. That "protection" has been killing the park at rate vastly exceeding anything done by farmers over the previous two centuries.
The problem with the control programs is that each time a shock is inflicted on the food web by the elimination of a species, the ecosystem is pushed into chaos, which naturally advantages the fast-breeding introduced species that can fill voids faster than the slow-breeding natives. For example, where rabbit numbers are high, they constitute almost 100% of the diets of cats and foxes. When rabbit numbers rapidly plummet due to poisoning regimes, controlled burns, or scientists releasing viruses, the rabbit predators (such as cats and foxes) are most destructive. With the rapid removal of rabbits, an ecosystem finds itself with a high number of predators but very little prey. Although the native prey are more difficult to catch than a rabbit, the high numbers of predators ensure they have little chance of survival. Ironically, as fox and cat numbers are reduced by the lack of prey, recovering rabbit populations find themselves in an ecosystem with low numbers of cats and foxes and one that their competitors have been hunted to extinction. Ironically, by trying to kill off rabbits in the short run, scientists help them in the long run. Likewise, by trying to save native animals by killing ferals, many of them have been made more endangered.
While native fauna is struggling in reserves and in areas where there is little urban development, it is thriving in Tasmania where low density farming communities are spread throughout the state. Aside from the thylacine, Tasmania has not lost a single marsupial since colonisation. Native fauna is also thriving on Kangaroo Island, where there is also a good mix of residential and agricultural development. It is also thriving in capital cities like Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. Productive gardens with a water feature provide a haven for reptiles, birds and small mammals. Admittedly, some gardens also have a stalking cat, but other gardens have a resident dog that keeps the cats away. In addition to the gardens, city golf courses provide good plains of grass for kangaroos as well as dams for turtles, frogs and fish. Even our small creeks collecting stormwater runoff have value, with many platypuses being attracted to the abundant supply of worms and yabbies in them.
The ideology of locking up “wilderness” and then killing the ferals to protect it is best described as the ideology of a prison warden. It is an ideology that doesn’t see humans as part of the ecosystem, but does their role to be the judge, jury and executioner over it. Ironically, the prison warden culture sometimes portrays itself as a custodian of Aboriginal environmental approaches, especially in regards to fire management. In truth, the two cultures are poles apart. Firstly, Aboriginal cultures saw themselves as part of the ecosystem, not masters over it. Secondly, they didn’t have a concept of ferals and natives. For example, some cultures elevated the dingo as a creation spirit like the Rainbow Serpent, not a recent arrival from South East Asia. Likewise, when the cat appeared, it was just seen as another food source and component of the ecosystem, not a feral to be killed.
To understand how a prison warden approach to science developed, it is important to consider the cultural, monetary and psychological factors that have shaped how scientists define the environment and and their role in it.
The management of the Australian environment is highly cultural and anchored in social identity. In short, scientists are using culturally constructed value judgments when deciding if an animal should be killed. As argued by Reid 2012:
The target of these eradication policies seems to be to create a kind of Garden of Eden that predates the corruption of modern society. Some of the thinking can be seen in the words of Dr A. J. Brown, from Griffith Law School:
In truth, the Australian ecosystems of 1788 were as much human creations as golf courses are today. Defining them as wilderness relegates Aboriginal people into a sub-human category that the likes of Dr Brown do not feel that they share. The tendency to see Aborigines as part of the Australian ecosystem, rather than part of the human race, can perhaps be seen as a cultural legacy of Aborigines being categorised in some state government Flora and Fauna Acts until 1967.
If Aborigines were thought of as human, then wilderness could be defined as any state that the ecosystem was in over the last 60,000 years. This change in thinking would have implications for efforts to re-populate animals like the Tasmanian devil or koalas in mainland ecosystems where they lived 500 or so years ago, but did not exist at the time of European colonisation.
Koalas were in fact re-populated on Kangaroo Island in the 1930s, but some scientists have deemed this action to be an example of environmental vandalism and have proposed undoing it. According to David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide, there was a hierarchy of animals rights on Kangaroo Island, and the koalas' rights were close to the bottom. In his own words:
As well as influencing definitions of animals rights and the target year for the definition of wilderness, the cultural categorisation of Aborigines as flora and fauna has also influenced the way that fire is conceived in the ecosystem. Because Aborigines used fire for hunting, many environmental scientists see fire as a natural input that needs to be added for the Australian wilderness to survive. Today, this ideology justifies an industry of "mosaic" burning. This is a method of burning the landscape in patches in the hope that biodiversity will increase because the undamaged patch will evolve differently to the damaged patch. By this logic, mosaic logging would also increase biodiversity, as would mosaic mining. While all would achieve a mosaic outcome, only burning is embraced because only burning is conceived as a non-human action.
However, if Aborigines were conceived of as humans instead of a natural part of the ecosystem, then scientists could justify undoing the damage of humans by using mosaic mulching, mosaic fertilising or mosaic watering to compensate for the nutrients and water that are lost when a fire rips through the ecosystem. With more nurtients and water increasing productivity, potential biodiversity would then be enhanced. Scientists are very happy to do this after loggers or miners have damaged the environment for economic objectives, they just don’t want to do the same after Aborigines because they are not conceived in human terms.
The deceptive nature of recovery
As well as being seen in the classification of wilderness, culture and identity is seen in the classification of ferals to be eradicated and non-ferals to be protected. This is particularly controversial in relation to the dingo and even more controversial when the dog is a mix of dingo and other breeds. Some people, such as dingo expert Laurie Corbett, have proposed taking the whole ecosystem's response to the animal into account when deciding if an animal is native or not. In his own words:
Critics, such as biologist Tim Low, have disputed the classification on semantic grounds. Low has expressed his concern that Corbett's classification system makes the words "feral" and "native" obsolete. In his own sarcastic rebuttal:
Certainly Corbett’s definition would make defining a feral species much harder, but in doing so, the health of an ecosystem would more likely be judged on whether it is biodiverse and whether each component seems assured of survival. On the other hand, Low’s definition judges an ecosystem’s health by the number of ferals. Even though an ecosystem may be diverse, balanced and adaptable to change, scientists using Low's definition will kill ferals simply because history says they are ferals. In short, Corbett's definition is scientific because it advocates considering the ecosystem's health. Low's is cultural because it advocates reading history books and killing flora and fauna on the basis of those history books.
Environmental science is a popular subject to study in Australian universities but there are very few jobs for environmental graduates. In non-industrial areas, the biggest source of employment is in public funding for the control of species (both feral and non-feral), and monitoring the success of the control programs. As a result, scientists have often favoured methods of control that will enable them to continue to be funded in the future. In the words of Reid 2012,
First, they cull a species, such as dogs, which causes another species, such as kangaroos, to get out of balance. They then ask for funding to cull kangaroos as well. The culling of kangaroos has been very problematic because often it is the big males who have the strongest genes that are shot. In a natural ecosystem, it is the old, the weak, the young or the diseased which are taken by predators. This helps keep the gene pool strong. Likewise, they ask for funding to poison foxes and cats. Rabbits then become a problem so they ask for funding to poison rabbits. The culling has no chance of long-term success because it can’t overcome the vacuum effect, and more just move in. Meanwhile, the ecosystems food webs are constantly being shocked.
Attempts to “control” koalas on Kangaroo Island are perhaps the best examples of monetary agendas taking precedence over scientific ones. Kangaroo Island is Australia's third largest island. It exists off the coast of South Australia and covers an area of 4,405 km². It was separated from mainland Australia by a rise in sea level about 9,000 years ago. Remnant stone tools and charcoal suggest that humans occupied the land at least 11,000 years ago and disappeared from it around 200 BC.
In the 1930s, environmental scientists (governed by a different culture from today) decided Kangaroo Island would make a great Noah's ark for mainland species under threat. Koala, possums, platypus, and a wombat were introduced. Although the plan worked so well that Kangaroo Island became arguably the best place to see Australian wildlife today, some negative side-effects were caused by predators not being introduced with the herbivores. Specifically, koalas were so successful on the island that scientists felt that they were threatening gum trees used by birds and some insects. By the 1990s, it was estimated that their numbers had reached around 14,000.
Environmental scientists then developed a useless and expensive "solution." Specifically, they convinced the government to fund them to sterilise some of the koalas and pay for "community education" programs to justify what they were doing. The South Australian Labor government was receptive to their arguments so between 1997 and 2005 it paid for the sterilisation of 3,400 adult koalas. Each sterilisation cost around $140.
Needless to say, the remaining koalas kept breeding, the gum trees remained under the threat of extinction, and environmental scientists kept asking for more money to manage the koala "problem" and run public "education campaigns". Eventually the government wised up and realised that the management solution was just a revenue making scheme for environmental scientists. Funding has since ended and koalas have ceased being a problem.
Just as monetary agendas have governed attempts to control native animals, so have attempts to control non-natives. Perhaps the best example of this is the various methods to control cats and rabbits on Macquarie Island, a 34km by 5km island halfway between Australia and Antarctica. Cats and rabbits were introduced in 1860s to provide food if sailors were shipwrecked. Overtime, the two species formed a balance with each other.
That balance was interrupted in the 1950s when the myxomatosis virus was introduced to control rabbits. Each time a virus outbreak decimated rabbit populations, the cats started hunting native birds. In the 1990s, scientists gained $500,000 in funding to eliminate a population of only around 500 cats that had been on the island for almost a century and a half. When the final cat was removed in 2000, rabbit numbers were somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000. Within 6 years, the population had reached 130,000 and Macquarie Island's vegetation was being eaten to extinction.
(Left. Macquarie Island before the removal of cats. Right, after the removal.)
In 2011, $26,000,000 was spent trying to remedy the disaster. The first stage of the plan involved releasing another virus, the rabbit calicivirus, which had an average kill rate of around 90%. The second stage involved using helicopters to drop 307 tonnes of baits for the rabbits that survived the virus. This was around 3 tonnes of bait for every square kilometre. The third stage involved hunters and dogs searching the island for the next seven years with burrow bombs, and poisons to kill any rats or rabbits that survived the virus and baits.
The virus and baits were released in July 2011. By December 2011, hunters had caught a further 13 rabbits that had survived the virus and baits. One of these rabbits was a female that had bred. In February 2012, it was reported in the Australian newspaper that perhaps 10 rabbits were still on the island, but they were difficult to find in the recovering vegetation. Because rabbit eradication attempts have previously failed on most islands, the survival of rabbits was anticipated and it was expected that governments of the future would continue to make funds available to keep numbers under control.
On Macquarie Island, scientists conceded that the collateral damage of their recent rabbit control programs included a significant number of the local bird population that either ate the baits or the poisoned bodies of the dead rabbits. When the same control programs are inflicted on the mainland, collateral damage also includes the quolls, birds and goannas that eat rabbits. Even when the predators are not poisoned by the bodies, they are deprived of a food source. Collateral damage then expands to include the various marsupials that would not have been hunted by large populations of starving cats, foxes, eagles, quolls and goannas if rabbits were still around.
On an island, there is a small hope that the feral can be eliminated and thus justify the massive collateral damage caused. On the mainland, the feral can not be eliminated because more will always migrate in. Funding is therefore the sole motivation for the control program. The cost is the environment.
While the policies of control on Macquarie Island were so idiotic that it was difficult to see it driven by anything other than funding, as an example of stupid environmental policy being driven by money it can be topped by Western Australia’s “rabbit-proof fence”. This was a 1,833 km long fence that was built to keep rabbits out of Western Australia. It required a huge suspension of logic to believe that it was ever going to keep out the singular pregnant female that would make it obsolete, but money helped that logic be suspended. Sure enough, rabbits simply burrowed underneath, or the fence was knocked down by camels, and the rabbits went over the top. While it didn't keep out rabbits, it did kill a lot of other animals. The fence became a land version of the drift nets of death seen in the oceans. Kangaroos sometimes got their legs caught in the wires, or migrating emus came to the fence and perished. Fence constructors got money, while Western Australian politicians were able to show that they wanted to “protect” their state by making funding announcements.
Australian environmental scientists have shown an ability to shut down any emotional sympathy towards animals that they have decided have no moral right to exist in the Australian bush. In total, the cruelty inflicted on wild animals in Australia vastly exceeds that of Chinese dog farmers than skin the dogs alive or Japanese that harpoon whales in the southern ocean. The Chinese dog farmers and Japanese whalers can shut down their emotions because they see the animals they kill as a commodity. The same does not explain the actions of scientists in Australia, who have obviously been motivated by some baser emotion.
On Macquarie Island, scientists went to war against furry little animals and such was their desire to reduce their numbers by any means possible, they were prepared to kill thousands of birds in the process. When people are prepared to cause so much death, it is difficult to believe that they have any love for animals.
All over Australia, animals are dying cruel and slow deaths as a result of scientists releasing genocide viruses, burning the landscape, dropping millions of tonnes of baits, or shooting. By killing the animals, the scientists feel a sense of power and probably gain a sense of pleasure much like a Nazi guard gained pleasure from killing Jews in World War 2 or that some Queensland residents feel by smashing cane toads with golf clubs.
Even native animals have been caught up in the destruction. After cutting their teeth on killing ferals, scientists have moved onto non-ferals as their next target. For example, biologist Tim Low argued that Australia will only be a mature nation when killing native animals is accepted as a worthy conservation strategy. In his own words:
It is probably the satisfication in killing that prevents food webs from being considered when deciding whether killing will actually have any benefit.The scientist sees the animal and has such a strong emotional desire to kill it that he or she can’t comprehend the consequences of his or her actions. In what seemed like common sense, after the initial disaster on Macquarie Island, Arko Lucieer from the University of Tasmania, actually acknowledged that all species are part of a food web and there are impacts when they are removed. In his own words:
The most distressing aspect of the destruction is that there are alternatives that don't require such cruelty. Rabbits were introduced to Kangaroo Island but they were eaten to extinction by the rosenberg goanna. The goanna does not exist in high concentrations on the mainland due to the ripping of rabbit warrens that it shelters in, predation from foxes, and human initiated burning regimes that destroy its habitat. Goannas are also likely to suffer from myxomatosis outbreaks decimating rabbit populations and they may eat poisons left for foxes. In short, goannas are killed off by scientists trying to kill rabbits and foxes.
Just as a natural predator has solved a problem on Kangaroo Island, so too has it solved a problem in Tasmania. Because of the Tasmanian devil sniffing out its dens and eating their young, all red foxes introduced to Tasmania over the last 200 years have died out.
Professor Chris Johnson, from James Cook University, is one of the new generation of scientists that believe biodiversity can be enhanced with an ideology of addition rather than eradication. Johnson has argued in favour of reintroducing dingos, quolls and the devils to the various mainland ecosystems that humans have eradicated them from. Professor Johnson has stressed that native predator communities need to be rebuilt as they have the ability to remain in balance with native prey. As native predators replace the feral predators, or reduce their numbers, native prey is able to rebound.
Professor Johnson has some interesting research backing up his proposal. He has found that in places where dingoes are rare or absent, and foxes and cats are abundant, 50 per cent of ground-living mammals have vanished. Where dingoes remain abundant, the rate of local disappearance is 10 per cent or less.
Johnson's ideology is a step away from the prison warden ideology that governs mainstream environmental science. It is an ideology that tries to make the ecosystem capable of finding a balance with itself without the need for humans to act like a Nazi guard of a concentration camp.
Culture is one of the barriers to Johnson’s plan gaining acceptance. Current cultural definitions of wilderness that see 1788 as the target year to replicate do not allow for Tasmanian devils to be repopulated on the mainland. Furthermore, some cultural definitions regard dingos (or dingo cross-breeds) as an invasive species that must be eliminated from ecosystems, not added to them.
Another barrier is money. On Macquarie Island, environmental scientists got $26,000,000 to attempt to do something that the goanna did for freely and successfully on Kangaroo Island. Very few scientists want to be unemployed so they will not support programs that result in them losing their jobs to dingos, goannas, quolls or devils. Admittedly, money could be made by breeding and releasing native predators but breeding and releasing is much more onerous work than is dropping poisons, shooting, releasing viruses or setting the bush alight. Furthermore, breeding is an employment activity that requires ownership of rural land, which is is a problem for many environmental scientists who want to live in cities but spend time in the bush to earn some cash. The third barrier is psychology. Many scientists obviously enjoy the sense of power that killing animals gives them. Monetary motivations aside, it really wouldn’t be possible to kill inflict such cruelty on so many animals in such a futile way unless there was some kind of satisfaction gained from it. The release of native predators would undermine that sense of satisfaction and also take away some of that sense of power that motivates environmental scientists to enter the profession.
Activity 1 - The changing facts of science
Activity purpose – To explore how in “science” the facts are often changed to suit the ideology rather than the ideology changing to suit the facts.
According to the authors, willows should be removed because they
Answer the following questions to determine whether the willow is really all bad:
It has been said that the difference between a stupid person and a wise person is that the stupid person changes the facts to suit the ideology, the wise person changes the ideology to suit the facts. Either most scientists were wrong before the 1980s or most were wrong after 1980s. Decide which group was wrong and then decide if any of the following ideologies may have corrupted their facts:
Activity 2 - Understanding ecosystems
Activity purpose – To understand that an individual species are part of interconnected food webs and therefore can be removed without other species being affected in some unknown ways
1) Research the following animals and for each one, find out:
2) Construct a food web using all the animals and then answer the following questions:
Activity 3 - Ideology of Environmentalism
Activity purpose - To understand the role that morality and social identity plays in the definition of "science."
Look at the words of Dr A. J. Brown, from Griffith Law School:
Activity 4 - Environmental xenophobia
Activity purpose - To understand how aspects of human psychology dealing with prejudice have affected environmental science in Australia
After cats were removed from Macquarie Island, a population explosion of rabbits and rats caused an eco-disaster. Dr Arko Lucieer from the University of Tasmania then wrote:
Activity 5 - Compare the fortunes of rabbits on two islands
Activity purpose - To study of contemporary environmental “science” so that lessons can be learnt that would increase the probability of targeted aims being achieved in the future
Read the following paragraphs explaining how rabbits have fared on two Australian islands.
If attempts were made to influence the numbers of rabbits in a mainland ecosystem, what lessons could be learnt from how rabbits have fared on Kangaroo Island and Macquarie Island?
Activity 6- What to do about the Koala plague?
In the 1930s, environmental scientists decided that Kangaroo Island would make a great Noah's ark for mainland species under threat. Koala, Possums, Platypus, and a Wombat were introduced. The plan worked so well that Kangaroo Island became the best place to see Australian wildlife today. Koalas proved to be a particular drawcard, and by the 1990s, were helping to attract more than 140,000 tourists to the island each year. The economic benefits of the tourism dollar gave a powerful incentive to retain much of the land as wilderness instead of clearing it for agriculture.
Despite wildlife thriving and the tourists flooding in, scientists felt that there was a problem. Because the Koala had been introduced by humans, they felt it was not endemic to the island and could cause problems for other species. In the words of David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide:
Aside being an expression of environmental xenophobia, the main concern seemed to be that Koalas were eating Manna gums to death. It seems that the trees could survive having all their leaves burnt off in a bushfire and would even re-sprout after being cut down, but could not survive when most of the leaves were eaten by Koalas.
With the Koala's eating too many leaves, scientists demanded that something be done, or more accurately, that they be funded to do something. Their solution was that they should be perpetually funded to catch and sterilise some of the estimated 16,000 koalas on the island and run public education campaigns about the dangers of Koalas.
For a while, the Labor government agreed that not only did something needed to be done, but that a very expensive solution was the best solution of all. Consequently, between 1997 and 2005 the government paid for the sterilisation of 3,400 adult Koalas and relocated a further 1,000. Each sterilisation cost around $140. Needless to say, the remaining Koalas kept breeding, the gum trees remained under the threat of extinction, and environmental scientists kept asking for more money to manage the Koala problem and run their public education campaigns.
Seeing the absurdity of what was happening, some critics said there had to be a better way. Assess the following strategies below to determine if they could have been a better way.
Culling was a favoured option because it would have been cheap and quick. A couple of shooters would just have needed to be paid to spend a few weeks going from tree to tree shooting the Koalas sitting in them. The method could have probably been used for a complete eradication of Koalas from the island, as some people advocated.
Long ago, gardeners developed solutions to keep Australian wildlife out of their favourite trees. These basically involved wrapping guards around the valued tree so the animals could not climb up. They are commonly found in city parks today. On Kangaroo Island, scientists could perhaps learn from gardeners. They would merely need to identify their favourite trees and wrap a guard around them.
Introduce the Tasmanian Devil
The Tasmanian Devil was probably in need of an ark as well, but was not introduced in the 1930s with the other animals. This was a shame because ecosystems need predators to pick off the weak, or just eat dead bodies.
If introduced, the Devil could prey on Koalas as they move from tree to tree as the Dingo does on the mainland. As an added bonus, it seems that in 2011 scientists discovered that a virus was wiping out the Koalas. A Devil could potentially kill the weakened animals before they can pass the virus on.
In 2005, the government mostly stopped funding the sterilisation programs. For some strange reason, the population of Koalas dropped by half after a virus mysteriously went through the population. On the surface it seemed that sometimes nature self corrects.
As Koala numbers rose and their bodies became malnourished, the probability of harmful virus mutations increased. (Alternatively, maybe a virus jumped species after the Koalas were in a vet surgery being sterilised.) As an added bonus, the virus gave scientists something to request funding for.
Activity 7 - Eradication or addition to increase biodiversity?
Activity purpose – Considering less cruel, expensive, and counter-productive methods to enhance biodiversity
Read the following quote by Tim Low from his book Feral Future: